Ten evangelical leaders issued statements of support for President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, many of them lauding his character and dismissing stories of his alleged ties to Russia on the eve of his closed-door testimony Monday before Senate investigators about his contacts with Russian officials.
Evangelical leaders often issue statements about policy issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom, but they don’t often comment on specific administration officials. The leaders who sent statements come mostly from those who were on Trump’s evangelical advisory council, which operated during the campaign and is no longer official but whose members still stay in touch.
The group praising Kushner included Southern Baptist pastors David Jeremiah, Robert Jeffress, Ronnie Floyd and Jack Graham, Maryland pastor Harry Jackson, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., former Liberty chaplain Johnnie Moore, Florida megachurch pastor Paula White, Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and George Wood, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God.
“I deplore that politics in this country has descended into blood-sport wherein good people like the Kushners, in order to serve the country they love, must endure unfounded attacks on their character, honesty, and trustworthiness,” wrote Wood, who added that he had dinner with Kushner and Ivanka Trump several weeks ago.
Rodriguez wrote that Kushner has been “a great gift” to evangelicals. “We have always found him to be ‘an ever-present help in time of need,’ ” Rodriguez wrote, a reference to Psalm 46, which refers to God as an ever-present help in time of need.
Falwell and White both openly doubted the Russia stories in the news media. “Clearly, this Russian story is nonsense and it must end, enough-is-enough,” White wrote.
The statements supporting Kushner were released to the public by Moore, who handles media relations for many pastors and ministries. Moore said that it was his idea to share the praise of Kushner and that the White House did not suggest it.
Kushner has “been a real friend to us. He’s opened doors for us,” Moore said. “It’s like if I have a family member that’s accused of something and I know that’s absurd I’m going to raise my voice. That’s how we feel.”
Moore said that although evangelicals have been courted during previous Republican presidential campaigns, they generally do not enjoy the same level of access with GOP administrations post-election. Kushner is attractive to evangelicals, he said, because he’s an outsider like them, a businessman first and not a politician.
During Trump’s administration, Kushner has met with evangelical leaders several times, Moore said, including when pastors prayed with Trump earlier this month, when they gathered at the White House in April for an executive order on religious freedom, and earlier in the presidency when Trump’s Supreme Court nominees were being floated.
The leaders’ statements are an unusual display of support, said Rob Schwarzwalder, who has worked in conservative Christian politics for many years and now teaches at Regent University. He believes that it may stem from conservatives’ beliefs that the news media wants to derail Trump’s efforts.
“There’s a circle-the-wagons effect, and it might be resulting in the unqualified support from leaders,” he said. “The only person we should give unqualified allegiance is the Lord Jesus Christ. Anything other than that is a form of idolatry.”
While there is a deep divide in the Southern Baptist Convention over whether pastors should continue to vocally support Trump, several Southern Baptist pastors continue to support the president. Jeremiah, a pastor of a Southern Baptist megachurch in California, said that Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who are Jewish, may have been chosen by God to help Christians.
“It’s just like God to use a young Jewish couple to help Christians in the United States, defend their rights, and secure their religious freedom for now, and for subsequent generations,” Jeremiah wrote in his statement.
Moore said that many evangelicals feel “a connectedness” to Kushner’s Orthodox Jewish faith because it’s so “seamlessly integrated in his life. ”
Many white evangelicals have warm attitudes toward Jews because they believe God has set them apart as chosen. White evangelicals rate Jews more positively than any other non-Christian religious group, but Jews rate white evangelicals least positively among Christian groups, according to the Pew Research Center.
Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Texas, wrote that Kushner has been evangelicals’ key liaison.
“I’ve never known him not to take seriously any question or issue we’ve raised with him,” Graham wrote.
Bishop Harry Jackson, who pastors a church in Maryland, said he was motivated to support Kushner because he has connected with him during a small group dinner on the issue of criminal justice reform and believes they can do “powerful things” together.
“I feel like there’s just character assassination and vilification,” Jackson said. “I have a heart for people who are being double teamed, the underdog.”
Many people who represent faith-based groups have been critical of the access given primarily to evangelicals and not to members of other faith traditions, said Michael Wear, an evangelical who handled faith outreach for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and worked in his faith-based office.
“In many policy disagreements, the [Obama] White House didn’t go the conservative evangelical way, but that’s totally different from being shut out,” Wear said. Trump, he said, has given access primarily to a select group of evangelicals instead of finding people who represent other kinds of Christians, including leaders of black Protestant denominations and Catholic institutions.
Under President George W. Bush’s administration, evangelicals who wanted to communicate their policy issues usually went through liaisons or White House officials such as Mike Gerson or Peter Wehner, who are evangelicals.
Obama’s faith team reached out institutionally to faith leaders, including heads of denominations and faith-based ministries who had people working on policy in Washington. Many of Trump’s supporters, however, are Pentecostal or Southern Baptist pastors who don’t have formal constituents outside their own churches.
“Who does Paula White represent? What policy expertise does she have?” Wear said. “Who has empowered her to speak on behalf of their policy recommendations … unlike Trump’s hand-picked supported people who will put a collar on defending Jared Kushner.”
The group of evangelicals from the campaign is not formally connected to the White House, so it’s unclear, Wear said, what advice is being directed to agencies and staff members. But some of them are given access to the White House, and many of them have been given a tour of Trump’s private quarters.
“It’s mutually beneficial for both sides to say they’re talking all the time even if they’re not talking all the time,” Wear said. “We don’t know how meaningful whatever interaction there actually is, or if it’s just let me show you the Lincoln bedroom so you can tweet it out.”
On Tuesday, Kushner will speak behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee.